Monday, July 15, 2024

Hefty fines poured over illegal liquor

An Auckland liquor importer and distributor have been fined $244,000 for attempting to sell thousands of bottles of illegal liquor and avoiding the rules in place to protect consumers.

Importer Golden Grand Trading Limited and distributor Mayajaal Holdings Limited were sentenced in the Auckland District Court following a successful prosecution by New Zealand Food Safety.

Golden Grand Trading pleaded guilty to three charges under the Food Act 2014, including being an unregistered importer, and Mayajaal Holdings pleaded guilty to one charge under the Food Act.

In the decision by Judge RJ Collins, Golden Grand Trading Limited was fined $142,000 and Mayajaal Holdings Limited was fined $102,000. Both companies were ordered to share costs of $36,000 for disposal of the alcohol.

The companies were investigated after allegations they were supplying illegal liquor to retailers between 2016 and 2019.

The offending included both companies recklessly possessing for sale or selling non-compliant alcohol involving some 5,534 bottles of imported liquor that had either no  lot codes or were stickered with a lot code that was not genuine. The liquor had an estimated retail value of $292,526. All liquor was seized by compliance investigators from their distribution warehouse. Another 30 bottles were recalled, seven were seized from a liquor store and two other bottles from an online purchase were also seized.

New Zealand Food Safety deputy-director general, Vincent Arbuckle said lot codes are unique and laser-etched into the glass of the bottle or printed on the label. They ensure traceability in the event of a product recall and assure consumers that the product contents are genuine and have not been changed in any way.

“Label integrity matters and when businesses try to get around the rules, they are at best deceiving consumers, and at worst putting them at risk,” said Mr Arbuckle.

“In this case, a sample of the liquor was tested and showed that the product was genuine, but that doesn’t excuse the offending. Consumers deserve to know that the product they are consuming is safe and suitable and the lot numbers help provide that assurance.

“Also, if a recall was required, the lack of a lot code would make it difficult for us to trace affected product.

“We take this type of offending seriously and will take legal action to ensure businesses do the right thing by consumers.”

He said the companies tried to avoid being compliant with the rules to save money.

“Our investigators found the importers bought thousands of bottles of liquor with lot codes removed and that it was cheaper – by nearly 7.5%,” Mr Arbuckle said.

An aggravating feature of the offending was that Golden Grand Trading had in 2012 received a warning about importing liquor with non-compliant labelling following an investigation. It resulted in a large amount of alcohol being destroyed. Letters were also sent to Mayajaal Holdings about requirements under the Food Act, New Zealand Food Safety confirmed.

Today’s sentence is part of a wider Ministry for Primary Industries compliance investigation called ‘Operation Spirit’. In 2022, another Auckland liquor importing company was fined more than $150,000 for also importing thousands of bottles of liquor that had lot codes removed or tampered with.

“Our responsibility is to consumers and their safety. People should expect to feel confident that all imported food is subject to consistently high safety standards and is fit for purpose. When we find evidence of non-compliance, such as lot codes being tampered with, we will take action, including removing products from shelves, and in serious cases, placing the offending before the courts,” says Mr Arbuckle.

“In August 2023, New Zealand Food Safety strengthened the requirements for all New Zealand food importers. The changes clarify the role and responsibilities of food importers when they bring food into New Zealand, to ensure that the food is safe and suitable for Kiwi consumers.

“We encourage all registered food importers to check the Ministry for Primary Industries website to make sure they are following the updated rules.”

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